08 February 2010

Bloody Red Murder on Superbowl Sunday!

I am one of those insufferable people who boast about not watching the Superbowl. Whenever it comes up in conversation, I hail myself as a master intellectual who does not have time to waste on mere sporting events. In fact, I tell all within earshot, I make it a point to go to the movies every year to take advantage of the thin crowds. Now, aren't you very impressed by my refusal to kowtow to the popular culture and the advertisers who run it?

Er...except for the movie advertisers, I guess...shit...

When I lived in Metro Detroit, my Movies on Superbowl tradition made perfect sense. Everyone and their dog in that city is an avid sports fan, so on that day, the suburban cineplexes lay desolate and dormant, ripe for a cinephile to luxuriate in quiet theaters and open aisles. This plan doesn't work as well in New York, however, because this city is awash in hipster masses of all types, from the young'uns just finishing their multimedia thesis at NYU to the middle-aged guys still wearing Buddy Holly glasses and elbow-patched sport coats to the old people trying to fit in as many foreign language flicks as possible before they pass. And let's not forget the loner weirdos (like me!).

Nevertheless, this year I was undaunted, taking up perhaps my greatest Superbowl Sunday challenge: a five-and-half-hour viewathon of the complete Red Riding, a trilogy of films produced for English television based on a quartet of noir novels set in the Yorkshire region. In summation, it was very good, maybe even excellent. You can read about it from any number of reviews (Slant's spoilerific analysis is the one I agree with most). Many of them compare the series to my main motherfucker James Ellroy (clearly a major influence here), "The Wire," or Zodiac. All apt. But I'd like to bring up another point of comparison that fits better with how I personally experienced the trilogy: Kinji Fukasaku's Battles Without Honor and Humanity series (aka The Yakuza Papers), which tells the story of Hiroshima's post-war yakuza struggles from 1945 to the early '70s.

The booklet the IFC Center produced for the "Special Roadshow Edition" describes Red Riding as "truly an example of the sum being greater than its parts." And David Thomson takes a similar tack in his sometimes insightful, sometimes unbearable essay at the front of the booklet:
RED RIDING is not to be grasped, followed, or understood--that's why you need to see it. This is not a veiled charge against [series screenwriter] Tony Grisoni and the others involved for not telling the story plainly. There are many internal elements subverting "organization" or authorship: three films; the adherence to muttered Yorkshire dialects that leave a good deal unheard; and an absolute refusal to let the story be tidy or finished. ... RED RIDING is not just hard to follow--it believes in a culture and a narrative where things no longer click together. You never know the whole story or the larger purposes because the world is no longer run on those pious timetables.
Basically, if you go in expecting to be told a story with a beginning, middle, and end, with all the different plot threads tied up in a neat little ribbon, you will be disappointed. What the films do exceptionally well is create a world and immerse you in it. It's not a happy world to be in, filled as it is with corruption and murder, but it feels truthful in a dark way, confirming our deepest suspicions as to how things actually operate. It's the sort of work that illustrates the chaos at the foundations of life, a chaos that mocks even the conspiracies attempting to take advantage of it (Underworld U.S.A., anyone?).

But I'm neglecting Mr. Fukasaku. To bring it back where I started: I kept thinking of the five part Battles Without Honor and Humanity series while watching Red Riding as it also has some substantial plot confusion embedded within its style and themes.

I didn't find the story too confusing in Red Riding, but many things do remain unexplained at the edges. With Battles, good fucking luck. Betrayals and alliances come at a breakneck pace, with the characters following (or, more accurately, neglecting to follow) the arcane codes that dictate their society. Fukasaku further stirs the pot even when the film is trying to help the audience along: Each major character is introduced with superimposed titles over a freeze frame of their face, but Fukasaku deliberately stops the action when a character is in motion, resulting in a blurry image. At the beginning of the films, these titles often come in a rapid clip, doing little to aid us in figuring out who is who. Let us also not forget that Fukasaku frequently uses the same actors to portray different characters in different films, giving a sense that these are souls constantly reincarnating but damned to keep making the same mistakes over and over.

In watching any of the films, I can't claim to feeling fulfilled in the traditional "story-well-told" sense, but they also create a world I love to linger in, one with enough madness and violence and criminal activity to feel like real life (or what we read of it in the news). It's a cumulative effect, with each film increasing the reach of the yakuza and the subsequent destruction they cause and, in turn, our compulsion to watch. Yet the films always frequently tie the gangster's doings to whatever political events were occurring in the era, reminding us that their evil deeds are only mimicking those of the world's governments. The first film opens with a black and white still of the atomic bomb blast that obliterated Hiroshima, the title Battles Without Honor and Humanity scrawled across in a bloody smear. By the time of the fifth film, which opens with the yakuza marching in a memorial parade for the bomb's victims, an entire culture of corruption has been built, and we can only watch in horror as men who commit violence as a part of doing business dishonor the dead by claiming to support peace.

Let us also not forget to praise the cinematography and music. Visually, the images are always striking - if I had an apartment big enough to hold a party, I'd put on a DVD for background ambiance. Musically, I admit that the series soundtrack is on the playlist of songs that air naturally in my head whenever I'm walking around the city.

And so it is with Red Riding. Both series present, in compelling visuals and sound editing/scores, a decaying society led by men who are looking out for themselves to a sadistic extent. In each, the individual moments take precedence over the encompassing plot in order to evoke moods and atmosphere. If you're lost while viewing them, that's no big deal. You can at least instinctively grasp the gist of what's going on - which usually puts you far ahead of the characters.

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